19

I work at a large, multinational corporation in the US. Other clarifying details will follow my question.

At my workplace, we have an office, upstairs, a lab downstairs, and a data center contained in the lab itself, as a separate room. Today, a woman (Alice) I work with was taken off a project she was working on with our singular female intern (Babs), cabling some new equipment. A male coworker (Clark) was tasked to replace her. When Alice walked out of the data center, she announced to the room at large, 5 or 6 males including myself, that she was being put on another project, and asked us to listen for yelling from the data center, and that we keep an eye on Clark working with Babs. Because she then came to collect her things that she had left to me, I remarked that I thought Babs was doing fine and could "take care of herself." Alice then told me that she didn't want Clark "taking advantage of any of the interns." This gave me pause for a number of reasons:

  1. I don't particularly like Clark, he told me outright "I'm a douche bag" today, but I never regarded him as dangerous.
  2. Being a man myself, I don't see the workplace as particularly sexist or giving reason for worry.
  3. I do worry a bit now that Alice herself, or other female colleagues may feel uneasy at work when not working with another woman. I am unsure if there is something I could or should do.
  4. This seems vaguely sexist, though I am unsure on who's part

My two part question: am I reading too much into this, or not enough? In either case, is there an appropriate course of action?


Clarifying Details

  1. I am 23 years old, I've worked at this company a little over a year and greatly enjoy it
  2. Alice is ~35, has been at the company a while, but is new (less than two months) to her and Babs' team
  3. Babs is perhaps two or three years younger than me, an intern who has been with us roughly two months, and will be here through January
  4. Clark is roughly my age, and generally unliked; he is constantly strutting his "lab manager" status around the lab, even though he has worked with us less than 3 months, and is almost assuredly on a lower pay grade
  5. Babs does not seem openly uncomfortable around the office, goes out at night and on weekends with a number of other interns I am good friends with, and was working on her team before Alice
  6. I took no action, other than to IM my intern who was also working in the data center and ask if Clark was "being annoying" he replied "no more than usual"
  • 2
    So, short-form, an older coworker (Alice) asked you to listen for a younger female (Babs) potentially yelling for help due to another coworker (Clark)? – Nat Jul 13 '17 at 3:00
  • 9
    Vaguely sexist? Oh, no, that's full-blown sexism, right there. – Wesley Long Jul 13 '17 at 3:00
  • 2
    @Nat I inferred Alice meant more along the lines of listen for Clark yelling at Babs or giving her a hard time. The data center is separated from the lab by a set of doors, but you could carry on a loud conversation through them if you needed to. Again, Babs and Clark were not alone in the data center after Clark left. – agentroadkill Jul 13 '17 at 3:04
  • 4
    @WesleyLong It seems like Alice might just have a problem with Clark specifically, which would not be sexism. Unless you're saying Clark is sexist, which I see no proof of here. – Dukeling Jul 13 '17 at 7:01
  • 3
    If I was the boss, I would terminate Alice today. If she has a specific gripe with Clark's behavior, then that is not the way to handle such a thing and she should know better. – Pete B. Jul 13 '17 at 15:58
21

For all you know, Alice just warned that Clark yells at interns and you guys should watch out for that. It does sound weird and not-funny the way she announced, but she could have meant as a joke as well.

My two part question: am I reading too much into this, or not enough?

At this point, I think you are reading little more than there is to it but I understand your concern.

is there an appropriate course of action?

I think speak to Alice in person and ask her to clarify what she meant, especially 'taking advantage' part. Tell her that you are worried if there is a safety issue you need to be aware of. If there was none, then you can also hint that it was not right of her to tarnish Clark this way in front of everyone. If she is really hinting a harassment concern, then you need to ask her to raise it immediately to HR/OMBUDS/Manager.

Either ways, your next steps would just depend on what Alice has to say.

  • I would also speak to Babs in person. Maybe the two of them talked while they were together in the datacenter. Maybe Babs is actually the one feeling uneasy. – skymningen Jul 13 '17 at 6:22
  • 7
    An accusation of this kind is a very big deal and needs to go to HR either way. If Clark is guilty then he needs to be dealt with accordingly. But if he is innocent then he is the victim of a potentially career-destroying malicious rumour and Alice is a bully – Gaius Jul 13 '17 at 12:31
  • I agree there isn't anything to do without talking to Alice, but I don't want to start something by her assuming I'm asking questions because I, myself am concerned, or suggest that I think Clark needs to be watched and interpreted her request with that in mind. Is there a neutral way to approach Alice? – agentroadkill Jul 13 '17 at 15:23
  • I do not think by asking her it means that you think Clark needs to be watched but it absolutely means that you are concerned which you are and you should express it. Why you do not want Alice to assume you are concerned ? – PagMax Jul 13 '17 at 15:57
11

Firstly, let me say that there is no clear evidence in your post that what Alice said is even gender related, let alone sexist. It could be that Alice would have given a similar warning if it was a male intern. Without questioning Alice further, you cannot be certain whether her comment was in any way gender related.

The only way to know what Alice's comment meant is to question her further. Does she know something you don't? There are a number of potential reasons why Alice could have reacted in the way she did.

She is frustrated about being taken off the project and is blowing off steam

In this case, there is no need to worry about Babs welfare more or less than you would of if she hadn't said anything in the first place.

She is concerned about Babs welfare in a general, non gender related sense

If this case you would need to find out if there is any particular reason why she thinks that an intern may be taken advantage of by Clark. If it is just based on the same observations as you have made of his personality and behaviour, then you can make your own decision as to whether there is any danger for Babs. Just ask her if she feels comfortable with the situation, the same as you would for a male intern.

She is concerned about Babs welfare in a sense that she could be in danger of harassment of a sexual nature.

This is a serious accusation which should be investigated further. It is wrong to assume Clark is a predator just because he has an abrasive personality or people have a personal dislike for him. On the other hand, if she has some knowledge and valid reason to believe that he may be a danger, she should share that information with the team.

I don't think you are obligated to do anything here, especially if you're not in a management position. But if you want to do something, talk to Alice and try and find out why she said what she said.

11

The way Alice handled this was certainly wrong. It amounts to an accusation against Clark. He has every right to complain to HR about it and likely should. If he does, then please be fair to him and tell the truth about what happened even if you don't particularly like Clark.

However, knowing that she may have information about Clark's behavior that you don't (She may even have made a complaint to HR previously, you would have no way of knowing that), I do not think it would be inappropriate to at least pay some attention to what is happening in the other room.

Women are assaulted and sexually harassed in the workplace more often than you likely think (it is estimated that 75% don't report it for fear of harming their own career, a fear unfortunately that is justified), it can't hurt to keep an eye out for that even being aware that Clark is likely innocent of the accusation. Do not change your option of Clark without evidence that something did happen, but any woman working in an isolated space can be in danger, it can't hurt to pay attention.

  • down voted due to misleading ideological language. – user1450877 Jul 13 '17 at 16:03
  • 6
    And what language would that be? It is a fact that women are assaulted and that most do not report it. It is a fact that women in the workplace are not safe. I have personally been assaulted in the office in front of 20 witnesses who all to man refused to testify as to what they saw even though I was tossed to the floor and my clothes ripped off before he got stopped. I have been grabbed and pinched and touched inappropriately more times than I can count. I have seen similar things happen to many other women. I have seen women lose their jobs or not get promotions as a result of complaining. – HLGEM Jul 13 '17 at 16:58
  • 2
    @user1450877 I see no misleading ideological language here. Please justify your claim. – Joker28322 Jul 14 '17 at 3:50
3

Alice acted unprofessionally and what she said could be considered a sexist remark against Clark.

She has implicitly implied in front of the team that it is unsafe for female interns to work alone with Clark, that he represents a danger to them, If I was Clark I would be very unhappy about that and probably speak to HR about it because it basically amounts to creating a hostile workplace for him.

If anyone is uncomfortable working with someone else specifically because of their gender then that is their problem that they have to deal with.

  • A sexist remark would be something like "all women think X" or "all men do Y", i.e. a negative generalization about an entire gender. There is no generalization here but a specific claim about Clark - not all men, just Clark. It may or may not be an accurate claim, and if it is an honestly-held claim then there are better ways to raise it (while if it's not honestly-held it should not be raised at all), but it is not "sexist". – BittermanAndy May 9 at 10:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.